Sunday, March 28, 2010

Art and Idea

Process Reflection: I worked on this panel this weekend. It's two feet square, divided into three vertical zones. I had already put a thin coat of white gesso on the plywood panel and sanded it back down to where it was nearly transparent.  I prepared the panel by gluing 1" square strips along the perimeter on the back, and then taped off the middle area and used gel medium to glue down aluminum foil on the two sides, which I then used a roller to flatten out. I like the aluminum surface for the acrylics because it creates unusual and somewhat unpredictable effects when you put acrylic onto it.

I took the prepared panel to my Saturday morning class with George. During the class I used a couple of different-sized squeegees to lay down acrylic. I intentionally began with a quinacridone violet (which is more like a red) that I have never used, just to see what that the impact of that would be. On the other side I used an ultramarine blue. I tried to create a rough, irregularly textured surface that took advantage of the irregularities in the surface of the aluminum that had appeared when I glued it down. Then, at George's suggestion, I used my fingers to rub some pigment directly into the wood section in the middle, which I then wiped back off, leaving traces of color in the wood grain. I began with brown, wiped that off, then went back into it with the violet and the blue, and wiped those off. Someone remarked that the panel looked like the flag of a little-known nation.

I decided to work on the surface some more. I took the point of one side of a pair of scissors and began distressing the aluminum surface, which created scratches in some places, and tore the aluminum in others. Then I went back over the aluminum panels with a soft yellow acrylic, with interesting results that you can see here: the yellow settle into the places where there were cracks and tears.

I was sort of not sure what to do next. George pointed out, accurately, that the two outside panels were a little too much like one another, and that I might want to try doing something different on one side or the other. I brought the panel home after class and was thinking about that. One way would be to change the surface itself. I thought about burning it or scribing it in some way. But I also though thought I might try to add some collage elements on one side, and there on my desk I had some leaves from the bodhi tree that my wife had given to me. I tried several of them in different configurations before deciding that I like the look of a single leaf in the upper right. It seemed somehow to complete the sequence from the purely mechanical and metallic stripe on the left, the wood texture in the middle, and the more organic green and blue panel on the right. So I used gel medium to put that down.

It still felt incomplete. I remembered I had an envelope full of the shavings from where I had chiseled paint from a previous panel in green. I often try to use leftover materials from one painting in another down the line; it creates a kind of process linkage, a larger narrative arc between paintings. So over on the right hand side there were those triangular yellow spots where the aluminum had torn, that suggested the shapes of leaves, and the idea occurred to me to reinforce that suggestion by using acrylic medium to glue down the larger paint chips from before. I left it to dry overnight, then worked back into the left hand panel with some brown and blue paint today, used some alcohol on the surface as well to craze the surface a little bit more, then wiped back into it with a rag and lightened up some of the random shapes. So now it feels done to me.

We had an interesting discussion during class yesterday about some key concepts in painting - materials, technique, style, and subject - and how they stand in relation to one another. I think that in painting, as in writing, it is probably more usual for an artist or writer to start with subject, and then use various materials and techniques to deal with that subject in a certain, often predetermined, style. As a writer throughout my life, and more recently as an artist, I've been drawn to coming at it from the other direction: starting with the materials and the technique, and arriving at a subject as an end product of the process.

If you were to ask me what the subject of this painting is, now that I'm more or less done with it, I might be able to come up with some plausible line of thought about the relationship between the synthetic world and the natural world, or about the quest for enlightenment in a diffracted world, or about the centrality of the organic, or about the underlying interconnectedness of all things in the universe. In a sense all of those things are present, having emerged in my mind at least in the process of putting together the painting; in another sense, none of them are. It's just a panel with colors and wood and aluminum and glue on it. Gerhard Richter again:

Pictures are the idea in visual or pictorial form; and the idea has to be legible, both in the individual picture and in the collective context - which presupposes, of course, that words are used to convey information about the idea and the context. However, none of this means that the pictures function as illustrations of an idea: ultimately, they are the idea.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Big Short

I'm a poker player. I've been playing poker semi-seriously, several times a month, for maybe 25 years. I even played online for money for a couple of years before the Bush adminstration, in its wisdom, made it illegal to do so in the United States. I've always thought that it was more than a little ironic that the government has been taking such an interest in the moral hazard that online poker presents to the average citizen, while at the same time doing everything in its power to support corporate high rollers by deregulating the banking industry and the bond markets, with results that are now all too familiar to all of us.

So it was with perhaps more than usual interest that I picked up, on Barney's recommendation, the new book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short. I've always enjoyed Michael Lewis: he's perceptive and he's funny and he knows both how to tell a story and how to pick stories to tell that have resonance and heft. The former principal at my school, who was one of the founders and instigators of a group of teachers devoted to the idea that teaching well was largely about helping students to think well, once remarked that Moneyball, Lewis's analysis of the paradigm shift in major league baseball was the best book on critical thinking he had ever come across. (I'm inclined to agree. If you're going to try take the team with the lowest salaries in professional baseball and make them win more games over a period of five years than any other team in baseball - which is what Billly Beane did with the Oakland A's - you need to come up with a new way of evaluating talent, and a new way of thinking about process. Of course, once you've invented the new paradigm, it's there for anyone to steal. Billy Beane's example had a lot to do with the World Series victories of the Florida Marlins in 2003 and the Boston Red Sox in 2004.) I started The Big Short on Sunday afternoon, read well into the evening, worked on Monday, and finished it on Monday night.

The Big Short is every bit as thought-provoking and revelatory - and funny, in a terrifying sort of way - as Moneyball. The difference is that Lewis is talking not about Our National Pastime, baseball, but about our Other National Pastime, which is Screwing People Over For Money. As in Moneyball, Lewis has structured his narrative about the subprime mortgage meltdown not from the point of view of the major players, the ones who pretend to know what they're doing, but from the point of view of outsiders, the relatively small number of people who saw it coming and did NOT succumb to the willful and self-serving acceptance of a completely illogical and unsustainable status quo. (Not that they weren't eminently self-serving in other ways.) Lewis is terrific at capturing the idiosyncracies of his characters in ways that reveal how it is that they were able to see what others could not or would not see. One of the key players in this drama is a guy named Steve Eisman, whose penetrating intelligence is combined with an unwillingness to suffer fools gladly. Two examples:

Working for Eisman, you never felt you were working for Eisman. He'd teach you but he wouldn't supervise you. Eisman also put a fine point on the absurdity they saw everywhere around them. "Steve's a fun guy to take to any Wall Street meeting," said Vinny. "Because he'll say 'explain that to me' thirty different times. Or 'could you explain that more, in English?' Because once you do that, there's a few things you learn. For a start you figure out if they even know what they're talking about. And a lot of times, they don't." (22-3)
Eisman had a curious way of listening; he didn't so much listen to what you were saying as subcontract to some remote region of his brain the task of deciding whether whatever you were saying was worth listening to, while his mind went off to play on its own. As a result, he never actually heard what you said to him the first time you said it. If his mental subcontractor detected a level of interest in what you had just said, it radioed a signal to the mother ship, which then wheeled around with the most intense focus. "Say that again," he'd say. And you would! Because now Eisman was so obviously listening to you, and, as he listened so selectively, you felt flattered. (139)
Lewis is also extraordinarily adept at using the thought processes of his characters, as they themselves try to wade through the murky waters of bureauocratic obfuscation, to explain in terms which ultimately do make sense such abstruse financial assemblages as LEAPs (Long-term Equity AnticiPation Securities) and CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations). And what emerges from the murk is essentially a systemic attempt to mislead people in order to be able to sell them a pile of crap:

The subprime mortgage market had a special talent for obscuring what needed to be clarified. A bond backed entirely by subprime mortgages, for example, wasn't called a subprime mortgage bond. It was called an ABS, or asset-backed security. When Charlie asked Deutsche Bank exactly what assets secured an asset-backed security, he was handed a list of abbreviations and more acronyms—RMBS, HELs, HELOCs, Alt-A—along with categories of credit he did not know existed ("midprime"). RMBS stood for residential mortgage-backed security. HEL stood for home equity loan. HELOC stood for home equity line of credit. Alt-A was just what they called crappy mortgage loans for which they hadn't even bothered to acquire the proper documents—to verify the owner's income, say. "A" was the designation attached to the most creditworthy borrowers; Alt-A, which stood for "Alternative A-paper," meant an alternative to the most creditworthy, which of course sounds a lot more fishy once it is put that way. As a rule, any loan that had been turned into an acronym or abbreviation could more clearly be called a "subprime loan," but the bond market didn't want to be clear..."It took me a while to figure out that all of this stuff inside the bonds was pretty much exactly the same thing," said Charlie. "The Wall Street firms just got the ratings agencies to accept different names for it so they could make it seem like a diversified pool of assets." (127-8)
The Big Short is first of all a terrific read. Sure, I play poker, but I have next to no experience in the world of finance, and came to the book with no expectations other than that I like the way Lewis writes. The book just blew me away and felt like at the end I had had a great reading experience but had also gotten an amazing education as to What Went Wrong, and why. The scary part is that there is no real reason to believe that it couldn't happen again, or that it is not already happening again, not in exactly in the same arena, but in some parallel form. As Lewis points out in his final chapter:

The line between gambling and investing is artificial and thin. The soundest investment has the defining trait of a bet (you losing all your money in hopes of making a bit more), and the wildest speculation has the salient characteristic of an investment (you might get your money back with interest Maybe the best definition of "investing" is "gambling with the odds in your favor." The people on the short side of the subprime mortgage market [the featured characters in Lewis's book] had gambled with the odds in their favor. The people on the other side—the entire financial system, essentially— had gambled with the odds against them. Up to this point, the story of the big short could not be simpler. What's strange and complicated about it, however, is that pretty much all the important people on both sides of the gamble left the table rich... The CEOs of every major Wall Street firm, ... without exception, either ran their public corporations into bankruptcy or were saved from bankruptcy by the United States government. They all got rich, too.
What are the odds that people will make smart decisions about money if they don't need to make smart decisions—if they can get rich making dumb decisions? (256-7)

Wait, wait, don't tell me! I know the answer to that one. And the answer calls to mind unfortunately, the oldest poker adage of all: If you don't know who the fish is at the table, it's you.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Worf is However Worn

About 99% of the comments that show up on Throughlines turn out to be spam, and I just routinely delete them. Every once in a while, however, something so bizarre comes sailing in from cyberspace that it makes me sit up and take notice. Here is the full text of one such communique, which arrived this morning. It seems to me to aspire to be a representative of some emergent genre of 21st Century poetry. All I've done is add the line breaks. I hope that in passing this along I'm not unwittingly participating in some cabalistic plot to take over the world:

Worf is however worn to form, very,
to require the space's car. Providers size
was such, but elements and reasons
were in lower front large to kyosho's kind
of a several steering. Surviving away
in the horizontal sources, the legs
were forth desired until 1976 when surf
life saving australia mounted a equation
of irb crew tapes. celebrity answering machine
message. They are easier to place newly,
since the line can communicate up on the tips
and conserve his or her able investment
in series to the part races. Sufficient vibration
is a direct network that has updated its glass
through most of the serendipitous years
of other game, bending them worried out
and became in the place of the great islamic
jihad. The reality machine tells the ownership
to cancel a information sidewinder via opacity
and to cut the violation over the figure,
nearer or farther from the power. janome
long arm sewing machine. September 1956,
the free-fall time of the fln added to choose
a cosworth-powered size cage to save
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Car finance uk used, either, the doctor and
dodd are existed by quantitative amount calculation.

(Later): So then at lunch Tim shares with me that one of his students has actually found out that the putative genre not only already exists, but has a blog devoted just to it. O tempora! Oh Mores!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Texts Without Contexts

Very thought-provoking article by Michiko Kakutani here.

Sample paragraph:

Now, with the ubiquity of instant messaging and e-mail, the growing popularity of Twitter and YouTube, and even newer services like Google Wave, velocity and efficiency have become even more important. Although new media can help build big TV audiences for events like the Super Bowl, it also tends to make people treat those events as fodder for digital chatter. More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one. Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.

Childhood Obesity

Here's a video by a seventh grader at my school that won the C-SPAN StudentCam 2010 First Prize for Middle Schoolers this year.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Potted Plants

Went for a walk yesterday down to the Honolulu Academy of the Arts. Stopped off to see the Printmaker's Exhibit at the Linekona. A nice selection of prints in a wide variety of styles. That was fun. Then went over to the museum and took in the current exhibit, From Whistler to Warhol, Modernism on Paper. A lot of dark etchings in dim light, so as to preserve what color there was. Not much there that spoke to me. Sat down toward the end in one of the courtyards to rest my legs, and did a little sketch of some potted plants. Dropped in some color when I got home.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

An Honest Assessment

One of the perhaps foreseeable but nonetheless disorienting effect of the proliferation of technology options over the last ten years or so has been to create radical differences in mental processing even among people who work together and are otherwise more or less on the same page (to use a leftover metaphor from the analog age.) For example, some of my colleagues regularly rely on Twitter, some of my colleagues (like me) have tried it and found that it hasn't "taken," some of them have never tried it and have no interest in doing so, and some of them have basically no idea what you're talking about when you mention it.

Likewise, some of my colleagues are avid blog readers, and some of them are mistrustful of blogs (as they are of wikipedia, in some cases without ever having bothered to read any of either). I continue to be surprised by the number of people, even among those who do read blogs, who have no idea what an RSS feed is or how a blog aggregator works. I've come to rely pretty heavily on Google Reader to keep me up to date. Ever time I find a blog I think I might want to keep up with, I subscribe through Google Reader and the posts just stack up in my inbox until I get to them. The ones I really do want to make sure I see first thing every morning, I have delivered to my email inbox as well.

One of the blogs I've been reading with interest for some time is the Bridging Differences blog, which has essentially been a long-term slow-motion conversation between two of our best-known and most credible educators, Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier. Some of their discussion lately has been about the new book that Ravitch has come out with, in which she publicly reverses her previous endorsement of the education reform movement based on "accountability and choice," and of the No Child Left Behind program in particular. In the early part of her new book, she says

As NCLB was implemented, I became increasingly disillusioned. I came to realize that the law bypassed curriculum and standards. Although its supporters often claimed it was a natural outgrowth of the standards movement, it was not. It demanded that schools generate higher test scores in basic skills, but it required no curriculum at all, nor did it raise standards. It ignored such important studies as history, civics, literature, science, the arts, and geography... I saw my hopes for better education turn into a measurement strategy that had no underlying educational vision at all. Eventually I realized that the new reforms had everything to do with structural changes and accountability, and nothing at all to do with the substance of learning. Accountability makes no sense when it undermines the larger goals of education.

Well, duh. Anyone who has been in the classroom, as well as anybody who has been reading the papers (and/or the blogs) for the last ten years, know what happens when you put a high-stakes assessments at the end of the line. Since no one has the money or the time or the inclination to base those assessments on real work that students have actually done, it's a given that we're talking about some form of multiple-choice (and maybe short essay) test that is only going to measure subject area content recall and not give any sense of full range of student competencies, such as they might or might not be. Because it's got to be the kind of test that can be easily and inexpensively scored, it's going to target those things that are easily and inexpensively assessed. And because the stakes ARE high, any time that teachers might have chosen to spend on such critical but hard-to-measure skills and habits of mind such as asking good questions and connecting what you learn to what you live and conducting patient, extended trial-and-error investigations in the honest attempt to actually learn something on your own instead of waiting for someone to teach you the six easy steps — not to mention such touchy-feely but nonetheless desirable traits such as empathy and engagement and attentiveness and playfulness and, yes, joy —is time that cannot be spared,  and so those things are going to get pushed right out of the curriculum, because, kiddos, IT'S NOT GOING TO BE ON THE TEST, and so it doesn't matter. And so we get down to the joyless task of covering what IS going to be on the test, and if the kids still don't do well, well, let's lengthen the school day and lengthen the school year to give them more of what didn't work the first place. And if all else fails and the kids are STILL not doing well enough on the test and the continued existence of the teacher's job and maybe the school itself depends on the fact that they do, is it any surprise that some teachers and administrators succumb to the temptation sneak into the storage room and change a couple of answers, just to get them over the line?

I'm glad that Ravitch has not only come to her senses but also had the courage to publicly make the argument that we are on the wrong track, not only in her book but in other venues as well, as she rides the tide of publicity for her book, as for example on NPR. She has, of course, been taking a tremendous amount of heat for having done so.

I think it is unfortunate that the Obama administration seems to have bought into the same set of deeply flawed assumptions about the efficacy of high-stakes testing that the Bush administration foisted upon us. There's a pretty good wrapup of the criticism that is now being leveled at the unfortunately named "Race to the Top" initiative, including a video clip of an interview with Ravitch, on the  eSchool News site, one of the more recent and more interesting additions to my aggregator.

As if it weren't bad enough, all the wasted time and energy and money that has gone into the development of the state standards, we are now entering a period of debate over the newly released draft version of the Common Core National Standards. Before we go marching down that road, I'd hope that we'd get around to addressing the questions that High Tech High's Ben Daley posts on his blog:

• Can somebody point to a state where the standards and accompanying standardized testing regime has led to improved schools?

• If such a state exists, why don’t we merely adopt that system at a national level?  Shouldn’t we scale up what works?

• If, as I strongly suspect, such a state does not exist, why will that which has not worked at the state level magically start working at a national level?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against high standards as such. What I'm against — on philosophical, pedagogical, and experiential grounds — are two notions: first, that we will ever arrive at a set of standards that we can, or should, agree on; and second, that we can get away with high-stakes assessment on the cheap. You want real high stakes testing? Give kids real work to do in their community, and have them stand up in front of the community when that work is done to present it. That means that the members of that community have to be willing to stop what they are doing long enough to listen, to evaluate what they see, and to give detailed and honest feedback. If you doubt that this is realistic or that it can be done, I refer you once again to Ron Berger's An Ethic of Excellence, and to the work that Ben Daley and his colleagues are doing at High Tech High.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Divided Self

It's a windy night in Honolulu, a little before 8:00, and I'm trying to guesstimate how much energy I have left before I fall into bed, something I could do right now happily enough. One part of me wants to stay up long enough to write something for Throughlines, especially since I've got a little streak going, ten days and counting, and I don't want to fall off the wagon. Another part of me wants to lay out the paints and hook up some music and get into the alternate zone that painting induces, what Gerhard Richter was talking about when he came up with the line I quoted the other day: "Painting has nothing to do with thinking, because in painting thinking is painting." Part of me wants to go over to Chess Cube and play a couple of games, but that feels dangerous right now because I'm sleepy enough that I'm almost certain to blunder away a game or two, like I did last night. And part of me would just like to go down to the mall or the beach and wander around and actually experience what it means to be out in the world on a windy spring evening on a tropical island.

I had a lot of good conversations at work today, with colleagues, with a prospective teacher, with a group of teachers planning for a curriculum re-assessment. We're nearing the end of our preparations for the visiting team which will arrive on Sunday to assess our status as a school and decide whether we deserve to be accredited, and if so, for how long. We've been two years preparing for the visit, and I've been in charge of the preparations. I'm feeling good about it, and am looking forward to meeting the team and doing what I can to be of help to them while they are here. Of course, I'm going to feel even better on Wednesday evening, after the visit is over and I can turn my attention to many other things that have been piling up on my desk while I've been checking and filing the exhibits and tracking down materials and lining up meetings. I've gotten a lot of help from my colleagues and I think we're as ready as we're ever going to be.

So that's it for tonight. Not much hear to nourish the brain or the heart, gentle reader. My apologies. Maybe tomorrow I'll write about math. I've been conducting a little study, and it's probably time to figure out what I've learned and what I need to look at next.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

All Over Coffee

Yesterday I mentioned that I had been reading, and very much enjoying, Paul Madonna's book All Over Coffee. What I didn't say that I was working carefully through book, panel by panel, and that I had not yet reached the end. Today I finished it and was delighted to find an an 11-page Afterword, an extended process reflection which explains not just about the origins and mechanics of the drawings, but also about the stages of Madonna's career as an artist and the various surprises and challenges along the way. It's always tempting to assume, when you see a well-designed product, that whoever put it together must have just sat down and tossed it off. Madonna explains how at one point, before the idea of doing a comic strip occurred to him (I cringe when I write "comic strip;" calling Madonna a comic strip artist is like calling Anton Chekhov a storyteller; it's may be true, to a degree, but not sufficient), he had been working for some time, on a graphic novel that just wasn't working out. And once he did get started on the strip, he found that success bred other challenges:

    Over the next few months, people began to recognize me while I was out drawing. I got everything from "Hey, you're that coffee guy!" to people knowing my name and other work I had done. The Chronicle continued to publish readers' responses where the letters of hate produced letters of love, and a debate picked up with me on the sideline watching. I had never experienced anything like it with my work before. A high school English teacher began using the strip in his class and had students write to the paper. One of the letters read, "People don't want something that makes them think." Disheartening, but no surprise. A reader wrote and asked if I was "trying to make them feel stupid." I didn't know where to even begin with that.
    I did my  best to listen but not get derailed by people's opinions and suggestions—which came hourly—and just keep on track with what I thought worked.

He goes on to detail the considerable challenges associated with producing seven days a week to produce four strips, which eventually led to hard decisions to cut back, first to two daily strips and a Sunday strip, and eventually just to Sundays. He also talks about the process by which this book, a selection and distillation of the work he had done for years, came about. A I write this tonight, I find myself thinking about the texts from two of the strips. I should explain that each strip consists of a drawing of a physical space (often the interior or exterior of a building or set of buildings) in or around San Francisco, superimposed upon which are a series of rectangles in which the words of a short narrative or conversation or meditation appear. There is usually no direct connection between the scene depicted and the words, but there's often an eerie, oblique sort of correspondence between what is being said and what is being depicted.

The narrative panels on page 148 — superimposed on drawing of a path leading into some tree-bespeckled foothills, partially in shadow — read, in sequence:

"And if you're going to do this," she told herself, "You've got to remember,

there are going to be bad times,

and times that you forget what you were thinking

and why you made this choice.

The second, on page 149, over a drawing of a rather ornate and stately residence on a city street, reads,

She suspects secret maps of the city exist.

Maps that aren't sold in stores.

Maps that chart seemingly normal sites

behind whose doors

lives more exciting than hers are led.

Many of the vignettes in this book work like this. They are about moments: the moment a thought arrives, the moment the light strikes the side of a hill or a building in a certain way, the moment when

There's only the sun and a feeling

that you're simultaneously doing all the right things

and completely wasting your life.

(Interested in seeing more? Check out this page from Madonna's web site.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Just Thinking...

I was just thinking, not that it really matters, but...

Honolulu has is the ideal place for a bike infrastructure. It's a small city. You could bike from anywhere to anywhere in maybe twenty minutes. The weather is nice year round. We're choking on cars. Gasoline prices are higher than just about anywhere in the U.S. And biking is good for your health, assuming you could bike without taking your life in your hands, which is the risk you take now. So why, several years after a referendum vote showed strong support for coming up a master plan for bike paths, is there still nothing going on?

In Disrupting Class, Clayton Christenson and Michael Horn hypothesize that by 2019 half of all the courses taken by high school students in the U.S will be online courses. A lot of the school administrators I've spoken with think that number is highly inflated. I think it's low. And I think it's going to change everything. As Will Richardson pointed out to a group of educators at a terrific presentation at NAIS, "If you're not feeling uncomfortable, you're not paying attention."

I've found a chess site I like better than Instantchess. It's called Chesscube. It's free, it's got a bigger display, and you get to choose who you play, instead of having random matches. It also has a more robust set of statistics archives for the games you've played. If you're a chess player and have trouble finding games in the 'hood, check it out. Thanks to Michael Goeller for the nudge.

Chang-rae Lee's new book is out. I've been reading an advance copy slowly all winter, because I'm not in a hurry to have it end. It's a tremendous book, more ambitious and technically accomplished than any of his three previous books. All of which I liked, but this book is something else again.

Another cool book I've been reading is called All Over Coffee by Paul Madonna. It consists of elegantly drawn pictures of the San Francisco area, matched up short prose meditations and snippets of dialogue and near-poems. Apparently he's been publishing these things in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sundays for a while now. Not living there, I had no idea. But the book, which I picked up when I was there two weeks ago, is way cool.

I'm liking San Francisco. I've been there often enough now (three times) that I'm starting to know my way around the downtown area. Love the galleries, love the architecture, love the scale and the pace of the city. Don't much like the weather, but I can cope.

Haven't been reading or writing any poetry for months now. Have to do something about that. There was a good poem by Hayden Carruth in the Writer's Almanac this week. And today there is a poem by Allison Joseph today which reflects on the disappearance of that most old-fashioned vehicle of communication: the letter.

I'll close with two quotes, both of which I heard at the TED Conference this year.

Robert F. Kennedy:

Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product…if we should judge American by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.


What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner.

Process Reflection: When I was living in Massachusetts in the 70s and 80s, one of my favorite columnists in the Boston Globe was Mike Barnicle, who would write human interest stories that were set in the streets of Boston and often told stories in innovative and highly dramatic ways. On occasion, he would pump out a column of more or less random thoughts and observations, under the generic title of "I was just thinking, not that it really matters, but..." (See a teaser from an archive site here.) I've been doing a lot of labor-intensive posts this week and I had really busy day at work today, so I thought I'd loosen up a little, and so what you see is what I got. The difference between me and Barnicle: he found a way to be funny, and pointed. I'm just flailing about. And ironically, this was a harder post to write than most of the others. Plus for some reason I'm having trouble getting it to post to Blogspot. Sigh.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Whereof One Cannot Speak...

When I was at NAIS last week, there was an alumni gathering on Friday evening, and a former student (not one I had had in class, but one who I knew because he was friendly with some of my students) came by and we began to talk. I asked what he was doing, and he said he was working. He had planned on going to graduate school, but had become disillusioned with the cliqueishness and artificiality of the discourse in the upper levels of his chosen discipline. I told him that his experience bore out my own. I was an English teacher (which is to say, a student of language) for 40 years. In my heart of hearts, that's probably still what I am, although it's no longer what I do, exactly. But my own experiences with graduate studies in English convinced me that a lot of what was going on was clever people trying to invent an exclusionary language so that they could recognize one another and conduct esoteric discourses that only members of their particular club could understand one another. It didn't seem to matter to them that much of what they had to say was, in essence, gibberish. It was elevated gibberish, and the fact that they had mastered it was proof positive of their status as intellectuals. I couldn't work up much enthusiasm for the game. It made more sense to me then, and it makes more sense to me now, to be talking about literature in terms of plot and conflict and theme and characterization than to be talking about, say, the historicity of narratology. The funny thing is, writers don't talk like this. You can read interview after interview with first-rate writers and never see the words "historicity" or "narratology," much less the combination of the two.

Recently as I've been trying to learn something about art, and I've come to see that the same dichotomy exists between those who actually make art, and those whose business it is to try to explain what that art is supposed to represent. Critics have a pressing need to come up with words and theories, and while it is certainly legitimate, and sometimes helpful, for a critic to be able to help you see what you had not seen before, there is always the danger that in their search for the penetrating analytical insight will lead them into semantic and syntactical thickets from which neither they nor their unfortunate readers may ever be able to escape.

As I've mentioned several times recently, I've become interested in the German painter Gerhard Richter, and a month or two ago bought a book entitled Gerhard Richter, Large Abstracts, published by Hatje Cantz. It's a beautiful book, and the plates are just gorgeous. But a book like this needs words, lots of words, and someone has got to supply them. One of Richter's most devoted critics, and one of the essayists featured in this volume, is a man named Benjamin Buchloh. Herr Buchloh is certainly a capable writer, and very devoted to his subject. And he sees the problem, he really does. Early in the essay:

Indeed, it is in this context that the the fundamental question of this essay can be posed more clearly: If none of the previous structures and semantic resources of abstraction can be considered as operative in the present, and if neither scientificity [sic] [??] nor social revolution, nor musicality, nor linguistic analogue can be claimed as abstractions correlatives any longer, in what time of communicative register—if any—can Richter's abstractions generate perceptual, cognitive, or semantic experience?
That's essentially a way of saying, "In the absence of anything explicable, what the hell am I supposed to explain here?" But he's got a job to do, and he's game for it. The problem is that once he gets warmed up, he has trouble keeping his balance. He doesn't seem to be able to stop himself from coming up with stuff like this:

As much as the universal delegitimization of the aesthetic had been at the center of Duchamp's project and the aesthetic of Fluxus, and as much as both had had a tremendous impact on the formation of Richter's pictorial project, infinity and the infinitesimal are only one half of the dialectic of Richter's abstractions. The other half is the incessant search, in each painting, and in each microstructure of a painting, for the singular constellation of material, procedural, cognitive, and perceptual forces in which an infinity of different subjects can discover an infinitesimal set of subjective differentiations outside of any preordained formal, social, political, or aesthetic order. Richter's abstractions address an infinity of subjects in perpetual search for a singular moment of an actual differentiation that would counteract the subjects continuing and total abstraction from it proper capacity to differentiate experience. (17)

It's not just his problem. In the same book, fellow critic Gregor Stemmrich stumbles down the same steep and winding path:

This does not mean we should presume there is a fixed concept (or program), but, rather, that his painting should be experienced and thought of as informed (in-formed) by a mobile horizon of critical questions and related reflections and idiosyncratic dispositions. (24)

No representation is per se immune to not being grasped as an integral determining moment of reality in which illusion turns out to be the condition of possibility of the appearance of something that itself only appears in the medium of appearance, which thus, at the same time, should be understood as the medium of life. (27)

The sound of the color can, even if it is only latent or optional, exhibit an emotional quality; the effects of light, even if it is only through reminiscence of other paintings, a spiritual quality; and the complexity of the arrangements, distributions, and superimpositions, a psychological quality, even if it is only a versatile one. In the process, these various qualities can affect one another so contingently, can call on and assume each other in alternation and, at the same time, produce spatial effects so that their entire effect is brought to bear as an atmospheric mood filled with internal tension. (28)

While I was in San Francisco, I stopped by SFMOMA and found another book, a paperback entitled Gerhard Richter (October Files) and edited by the apparently indefatigable Herr Buchloh. Books of art criticism are not usually thought of as sources of comedy, but I've got to say it was pretty funny to read through this sequence, in which Buchloh, interviewing Richter, keeps on blowing up balloons, which Richter keeps on sticking with pins:

What about the objectivization of the process of painting itself? You paint your big big pictures not with an artist's brush but with a decorator's brush; isn't this all part of the anonymization and objectivization of the painting process, along with permutation and "chance," color relations, and compositional organization?

Certainly not.

The change in instruments of production doesn't imply that the production of the painting is once more critically called into question?

It changes the pictures only in one respect: they get louder; they are not so easily overlooked.

I was talking about the instruments—that is, the instruments also influence the perception of the  picture. The fact that a monochrome was painted with a roller decisively influences the perception of the work. And in these big paintings here, where the brushstrokes suddenly turn into a decorator's brush marks, they take on a new dimension that I would describe as a quasi-mechanical or anonymous quality.

Not in this case. A brush is a brush, whether it's five millimeters wide or fifty centimeters.

So in the in the two yellow Strokes, their giant size doesn't add a new dimension?

That's something different again— they only look like two strokes of a giant brush. In reality they were painted with a lot of little strokes. Here, on the other hand, it's all genuine, so to speak.

But here in the two big paintings a new dimension comes in, no only through sheer size but also through the fact that the techniques and the act of painting have been carried to the limits of the possible.

The physical limits?

Yes, but also the limits of perceptibility of the act, as an act of painting. And there another dimension opens up in practical terms—a dimension that is not regarded as subjective.

These are just as subjective as the small ones; they're just spectacular, that's all.

Spectacular they certainly are, even in a small format. In my catalog text, I tried to describe how in your abstract painting the system is always "on show," as it were— that they always have a certain declamatory, rhetorical quality. One always gets the feeling that you're showing the various possibilities just as possibilities, so that they simply stand alongside or against each other, without performing any other function.

Like making a speech that doesn't mean anything?


A speech full of eloquence and uplift, which everyone falls for because it sounds good, which fulfills all the formal requirements of a speech and actually communicates nothing?

It doesn't sound good if you describe it that way, but you could put it differently, by saying that someone is delivering a powerfully emotive speech in order to give an analytical presentation of the resources of language, emotive persuasion, and rhetoric. That is, you are making the spectacle of painting visible in its rhetoric, without practicing it.

And what would be the point of that? That's the last thing I would want to do.
In closing, it seems to me that critics are better advised to say what can be said, and to avoid trying to say what cannot be said. Writing and thinking and art are not congruent, or even always parallel, enterprises. It's a point Richter himself makes repeatedly, in various ways, in the 2009 Writings 1961-2007:

Painting has nothing to do with thinking, because in painting thinking is painting. Thinking is language—record-keeping— and has to take place before and after. Einstein did not think while he was calculating: he calculated — producing the next equation in reaction to the one that went before — just as in painting one form is a response to another, and so on. (15)

Theory has nothing to do with a work of art. Pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures. A picture presents itself as the Unmanageable, the Illogical, the Meaningless. It demonstrates the endless multiplicity of aspects; it takes away our certainty, because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name. It shows us the think in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view. (33)

Talk about painting: there's no point. By conveying a thing through the medium of language, you change it. You construct qualites that can be said, and you leave out the ones that can't be said but are always the most important. (35)

There's a lot of stuff going on around the edges of this discussion that I'm still trying to figure out. But, to place one stake in the ground: In art, as in writing and in teaching, I'd argue for an orientation toward process articulation rather than an orientation toward product explication.

Image credit:

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Two by Two

Today I put what I think might be the finishing touches on two panels I've been working on. They're about 18" square and are part of a series that began back here. In fact, as you can see, the first of the two is actually a revised version of the last one in that series. I got the idea for the horizontal bar from a diptych that Scottie Flamm had on display at my school's carnival art show in early February. She had built up her paintings in layers of color and then scratched back into the painting in such a way as to create a band that looked like maybe some kind of computer music or abstracted language. I liked that effect, and I thought it might work well with the panels I was working on, especially since I had done a lot of layering and overpainting as I had put them together.

I wound up using a chisel-bladed x-acto knife to cut back into the surface and reveal the layers beneath, and tried for some consistency of shape rhythm, but some variety in how deep I worked into it.

About a week ago I finished another two-part invention. These were the result of an attempt to meld painting and collage in a more balanced way than I had been doing. I worked on the two of them simultaneously, thinking they might add up to a diptych, but I actually like them better individually than as a pair.

I'll close with a quotation from Gerhard Richter. I've been doing something of a study of his work, both what he has to say about it and what others have to say about it. (I find that I much prefer the former, of which more later.)

One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is total idiocy.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Spare the Rod?

Disclaimer: Saw this picture, which got me thinking. Am not advocating anything here, one way or another. Just trying to follow a line of thought.

Here's an arresting image from the cover of a 1931 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. It was posted on the Art Educator's Blog as one of the a sequence of covers by J. C. Leyendecker, who apparently was an influence on Norman Rockwell.

What are we looking at here? There's an elderly woman who has a nine or ten year old boy (presumably her grandson - she looks too old to be his mother, one can hardly imagine this kind of punishment being meted out by an employee of the family) straddled across her lap as she spanks him with a shoe. He's crying, but even as he's crying he seems to be reaching out toward the spilled jam on the floor which is presumably the reason he is being beaten. The puppy behind looking on woefully from behind the chair seems to be a tonal cue: this scene is to be read as sad, but cute. Amusing. Something to chuckle at, perhaps.  In 1931.

I cannot imagine that such an image would be created today, nor, if it were, that it would appear on the cover of any major American magazine without provoking a firestorm of protest. Seeing this picture 70 years later is a reminder of how much our culture has changed in its grounding assumptions about how children should be treated. There was a time in America when spankings and other forms of corporal punishment were completely acceptable, even endorsed, in the home and at school. The principal of the elementary school I attended in the early 1950s, run by the Sisters of Charity, of all people, had a wooden board with a handle in her office, and she frequently used it to paddle the behinds of miscreant students. And that wasn't the worst of it. I wrote a poem, some years ago, about one of my clearest memories from fifth grade. With the exception of one minor invention (Carolyn Halstead was not in my class, but she was the sister of my best friend up the street who went to the same school as I did, and I decided to give her a bit part in this drama), it is pretty much an exactly literal rendition of the events I witnessed in class. This would have been, let's see, probably 1957:

Sisters of Charity    

Sister Mary Vincent was 80 years old,
and wore rimless glasses to keep her aim
with the thimble she had attached to a string.  

(She was good with that thimble: she'd mount
it on her finger and let fly from fifteen feet:
thwack!  She'd never miss.) Well, anyway,  

when Ermino Spadino, the janitor's son,
turned around to pick up a pencil
Carolyn Halstead had dropped on the floor,  

she let loose with the thimble as she swept
down upon him, and in raising his arm to fend her off
he brushed her habit with his hand.  

"How dare you hit a religious?!" she screamed,
and grabbing him by the hair,  she raised him
from his seat and dragged him to the board,  

against which she smashed his head again
and again until he could no longer stand.
Then she dropped him back into his seat  

and strode to the front of the room.
Glaring at us, she straightened her rosary, took up
her catechism, and went right on with the lesson.

The last week or two for some reason I've been thinking about a lot of questions the answers to which tend to present them along a continuum. I've even had some dreams where I'm visualizing a series of essential questions with sliders attached to each one, sort of like a Likert Scale or an equalizer turned sideways:

The numbers to the right could be replaced by questions of the sort that come up all the time but do not present themselves as being amenable to binary yes-or-no, black-or-white answers. A short list of questions that have come in readings I've done and discussion I've had just in the last week or two would include:

What's more important in teaching and learning, content skills or process skills?
Content -------------------------------------Process

What is my responsibility to those less fortunate than I am?
Nothing at all ------------------Give all I have away.

When is it acceptable to sacrifice the life of one person to save that two others?
Never ------------------------------------------ Always

How much of what we do as teachers should be oriented toward developing a respect for alternate points of view and tolerance for ambiguity?
Not our job -------------------- Only job that matters

Are human beings by nature essentially good or essentially evil?
Right Wing --- Conservative ---Moderate ---- Liberal --- Left Wing

When is it acceptable to strike your child?
Never ----------------------------Anytime you feel like it.

The useful thing about sliders of this sort is that they invite you to think about where you would place yourself on a continuum, and what reasons you would be able to articulate for doing so. The not-so-useful thing about them is that of their very nature they are one-dimensional and perhaps encouraging of glib thinking.  It's clear to me that all of the questions above, for example, are related to one another in complex psychological and philosophical ways, and that the "answer" to any one of them would most often start with some variation on "Well, it depends..."

With regard to spanking, I'm opposed to spanking on principle, because I think spanking conveys in a perhaps unintended by nevertheless very powerful way that ultimately differences of opinion are enforced by violence. That's what I took away from my year with Sister Mary Vincent, the old battle-ax, and it's just about all I do remember of my year with her. And I don't think that's that's the kind of memories we want to be searing into the minds of children. On the other hand, I have seen all to often that parents who cannot bring themselves do discipline their children create havoc in the lives of their children, their own lives, and the lives of everyone with whom they come in contact. Spanking may be extreme, but I wouldn't want to say it is never called for. Would I take a shoe and beat my grandchild with it if they got into the jam? No way. But there are more subtle gradations. Is it okay to gently slap the hand of an infant reaching for a knife, or a flame? Especially if s/he was doing so after considering and deciding to ignore a verbal "No?" Now, I'm not so sure. I did it with my own children, who as adults now seem none the worse for wear. Kids do need to learn that sometimes "no" really does mean no, and it seems to me a lot easier to inculcate that message with a young child before they get old enough to see every occasion of decisionmaking as a gateway to boundary testing followed by prolonged negotiations.

So, it's a bit of a muddle. I don't like what I see in Leyendecker's picture. But I think it serves to pose a question worth thinking about.

Friday, March 5, 2010


No, it's not what you were thinking. It's actually a novel, written in 1965 by John Willliams, about the life of a young man who was born in 1891, grew up on a farm, went to the university, fell under the influence of literature, became an English teacher, lived a relentlessly ordinary life, and died in 1956. It is the most ordinary and the most revelatory of stories, told in a straightforwardly realistic (and deceptively artful) manner by its author, John Williams.

I first read about Stoner from on Scott Esposito's Conversational Reading blog in December of last year. It soon became one of those titles that keeps popping up in your mental landscape until you say to yourself, well, I guess I'm going to have to give it a shot. The straw that pushed me to it was when my friend Tim asked me if I had read it. I said no, but I bought a copy the same day and started in. I'd say that this is a book you'd want to read if you have an interest in literature, or in teaching, or in the notion of a life's trajectory and what one might reasonably hope to have accomplished or experienced at its termination. If you have an interest in all three, I'd say, well, you're going to have to give it a shot.

The main character, William Stoner, is not larger than life. If anything, he's just a smidgeon smaller than life. He's a pleasant man with a good heart, a man of limited abilities who is able to adapt to the circumstances of his life, but ultimately unable to transcend them. In other words, in the words of the Beatles, for example, he's "a bit like you and me." I'm tempted to say he's like Dilbert without the humor, but that's actually doing Stoner an injustice: whatever he is, he's no cartoon. He's a fully realized, sympathetic character, and if his life never turns out to be what he might have wished for or what we might have wished for him, it is not without its dignity or its compensations. John McGahern, in his introduction to the book, quotes the author commenting on his creation:

I think he's a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a really good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that were important. (xii)
There's a passage right in the middle of the book that I'd like to cite at length because it describes a critical moment in Stoner's career as a teacher, after he has been at it for a while, when due to personal circumstances in his life he begins to open up in ways that do begin to change his sense of himself: who he is and what he is capable of:

He was ready to admit to himself that he had not been a good teacher. Always, from the time he had fumbled through his first classes of freshman English, he had been aware of the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom. He had hope that time and experience would repair the gulf; but they had not done so. Those things that he held most deeply were most profoundly betrayed when he spoke of them to his classes; what was most alive withered in his words; and what moved him most became cold in its utterance. And the consciousness of his inadequacy distressed him so greatly that the sense of it grew habitual, as much a part of him as the stoop of his shoulders.

But during the weeks that Edith was in St. Louis, when he lectured, he now and then found himself so lost in his subject that he became forgetful of his inadequacy, of himself, and even of the students before him. Now and then he became so caught by his enthusiasm that he stuttered, gesticulated, and ignored the lecture notes that usually guided his talks. At first he was disturbed by his outbursts, as he he presumed too familiarly upon his subject, and he apologized to his students; but when they began coming up to him after class, and when in their papers they began to show hints of imagination and the revelation of a tentative love, he was encouraged to do what he had never been taught to do. The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and hear showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print — the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.

He was both saddened and heartened by his discovery of what he might do; beyond his intention, he felt he had cheated both his students and himself. The students who had been able theretofore to plod through his courses by the repetition of mechanical steps began to look at him with puzzlement and resentment; those who who not taken courses from him began to sit in on his lectures and nod to him in the halls. He spoke more confidently and felt a warm hard severity gather within him. He suspected that he was beginning, ten years late, to discover who he was; and the figure he saw was both more and less than he had once imagined it to be. He felt himself beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or inadequacy as a man. It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence. (112-113)
This passage interests me for several reasons. First of all, it is a fairly elegant and eloquent illustration of something that every teacher at some point must learn if s/he is to be successful and happy: that students respond to and respect what is genuine and what is true, however weird or geeky or odd it may appear to them at first. You have to be who you are, unapologetically and unfearfully. If you try to be what the school wants you to be, or what your parents want you to be, or, worst of all, what you think the students want you to be, you're doomed. You have to have the courage of your confusions as well as your convictions, and be willing to own up to both. Of course, any statement that general might be dismissed as a cliché. What I like about the novel is the way in which it particularizes the realization in a way that is itself true and convincing in the context of this one man's life.

Second of all, the passage is freighted with a great deal of emotional tension, not just because of the sadness that this new realization engenders in Stoner, but because any alert reader will understand immediately that with the new realization will come new complications. Stoner was himself, despite his limitations, not unaware that the love that he has hidden is in fact, if not exactly illicit, certainly dangerous, as love always is, and as it eventually, in this story, turns out to be.

Third, and this is perhaps less obvious but central to my own orientation to reading and writing, I think the passage is beautifully rendered. The beauty in this case is not a function of elegance or ornament or stylistic excess of any sort whatsoever, but rather from its simplicity, its lack of affectation or pretentiousness or self-conscious artfulness. The whole novel reads like this, effortlessly, smoothly, compatibly. It's a very good book. You should give it a shot.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Red Thread

Saw this animation by Kazuhiko Okushita at TED and it blew me away. It's even better the second and third time you watch it. There's a really cool narrative line that I didn't catch the first time. This is just a stunning example of what you can do with a line (if you're just insanely talented and imaginative and technically adept.)


I've been meaning to post something about the Ted Conference ever since I got back. It would take me weeks to even attempt to cover everything, so I thought I'd at least post something in the form of a little photo essay. The tag line for TED is "Ideas Worth Sharing," and this year's umbrella them was "What the World Needs Now." I've got to say that the founding premise of TED - that it would be a good thing to bring together people with interesting ideas and give them a forum for sharing them with others - both in person and by way of digital archiving - strikes me as incredibly simple and valuable and brilliant and worth celebrating. I've also got to say that this was one of the best-organized events, top to bottom, I've even been part of.

The conference was held at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, seen here from the top of a nearby building that I went to one evening for an after-hours jam session by the group Ethel, a string quartet which was the house band for the conference. They performed at the start of each morning and afternoon session all week.

The main conference hall was inside the center, and the stage was designed as a sort of attic with lots of odds and ends on display. In the center of the main stage was an enormous closed-circuit TV screen so that you could watch whoever was presenting close up even if you were in the balcony.

This, for example, is the stuff on display just on the right hand side of the stage. That human head is something like six feet tall.

I wound up watching most of the sessions from the balcony, which was less crowded and offered a more panoramic view. I did this drawing of what I could see from my angle of vision during one of the early presentations.

The emcee was Chris Anderson. If anyone reading this blog has any connections with Canton, Massachusetts and is getting the willies looking at this picture, that's what I was getting during the whole entire conference. The resemblance of this guy to a certain long-time baseball coach in Canton was really weird.

This is from the second floor of the conference hall, near the entrance to the balcony, looking back down at the first floor. They had juice bars and barrista bars in six or eight different locations at the conference. They also had breakfast and lunch tables set up. You could get something to eat any time you wanted it pretty much all day long. Outside you can see some of the tents they set up as social areas. Each social area had its own food dispensaries, comfortable tables and chairs, and closed circuit TV, so you could hang out there to watch the presentations if you didn't want to be in the main hall.

My own personal favorite place to hang out was the bookstore they had set up on the second floor. They had a ton of interesting books related to TED themes on display (and for sale), and then there was the lounge area you see here, again with its own hi-def widescreen LCD panel.

There were a bunch of amazing performers during the week. Here you see David Byrne performing with Ethel backing him up. That's Thomas Dolby on keyboards, who was onstage with Ethel all week long. Other performers included Sheryl Crow, Natalie Merchant, and Andrew Bird.

The talks started at 8:00 in the morning each day and went straight through every day until 6:00, after which there were donor-sponsored dinners at various places, including a block party in Long Beach where they roped off the entire block, booked all the restaurants, had the (free) desserts and the drinks out on carts in the street, and a live band to entertain:

Every day started off with a "TED University" session, which was basically 15 three minute talks in 45 minutes. They invite people to speak, get 300 applications, and choose one out of eight, on every imaginable subject. The morning and afternoon sessions were grouped loosely by themes, of which there were twelve: mindshift, discovery, action, reason, provocation, invention, breakthrough, boldness, imagination, play, simplicity, and wisdom. I wound up seeing something like 100+ presentations, about 40 of the 18 minute variety that they post on the site, and another 60 or 70 three-minute talks.

I took a ton of notes that I have not had the chance to even review yet. After a while it all kind of turned into a pleasant blur. Looking back, the four presentations that have stuck in my mind were a talk on climate change by Bill Gates; a talk by Mark Roth, a scientist who was describing how they are beginning to figure out how to chemically induce the kind of metabolism slowdown that allows someone, every couple of years, to survive being frozen, and what will eventually mean in terms of stabilizing people at accident scenes so they won't bleed out until they get them to the hospital; a talk on Justice by Michael Sandel, who teaches a course of that name at Harvard for which the lectures are all available online (he also just came out with a very good book (same title) that I'm reading now; and an amazing talk by a 13-year-old girl named Adora Svitak who came and chided the attendees, as representative adults, for giving currency to the word "childish," which she felt was an unfair and inaccurate word to characterize the capabilities of small people. She just thought that kids deserved to be taken more seriously than that. That girl rocked. Another really good presentation was by Natalie Merchant, who sang a bunch of songs from her new album which is devoted to putting late 19th and early 20th century poems to music. Ken Robinson was also back again in fine form.

This is all by way of a beginning. Yet knowing how way leads onto way, I don't know if - or when - I'll be back to this subject. But boy, was it great. Thanks, Youngblood.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Out Stealing Horses

I remember reading somewhere, maybe in one of Sven Birkerts' luminous essays on reading, that while we eventually wind up forgetting the details about what we have read, what does tend to stick in memory is the feeling of what it was like to be inside of a particular book. I think that's true. I finished reading Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses about two weeks ago, and I'm already starting to have trouble remembering the names of the characters and some of the details of the plot, but I don't think I'll soon forget the gestalt of the book, the mental state that it generated in my mind as I was reading it, which I would describe as a kind of serenely focussed attentiveness. The story is narrated by a 67-year-old man who has retreated, at the end of his life, to live by himself in at the edge of the forest wilderness. The plot, which I won't get into, has largely to do with the formative events of his life which emerge in a series of flashbacks, and ultimately serve to account for how he has come to be this particular person, with this particular voice, and this particular set of preoccupations.

What I most enjoyed about the book was precisely that: this voice, this character, being inside the mind of a character who thinks and speaks like this:

The dead spruce has been trimmed and cut up with the chainsaw into manageable lengths about half the size of a chopping block, and I have transported these chunks three at a time in a wheelbarrow and tipped them onto a heap on the ground outside the woodshed, and now they are stacked in a two-dimensional pyramid almost two metres high against the wall under the eaves. Tomorrow the work of splitting them will begin. So far, all is going fine, I am pleased with myself, but this back of mine has had enough for today. Besides, it has gone five o'clock, the sun is down in what must be the west, southwest, the dusk comes seeping from the edge of the forest where I was just working, and it is a good time to call a halt. I wipe off the sawdust and the petrol and oil mess sticking to the saw until it is more or less clean and leave it to dry out on a bench in the woodshed, close the door and cross the yard with the empty Thermos under my arm. Then I sit myself down on the steps and pull off my damp boots and rap the wood chips out of them and brush the bottoms of my trousers. I brush my socks, give them a good beating with my working gloves and pick the last bits off with my fingers. They make a nice little heap. Lyra sits watching me with a pine cone in her mouth, it sticks out like an unlit cigar of the really bulky type, and she wants me to throw it so she can chase after it and bring it back, but if once we start on that game she will want to go on and on, and I haven't the energy left. (89)
There are many passages like this in the book, descriptive passages which are laid out in patient, accumulative manner. There's an essential centeredness, conveyed by the pacing, the deliberate sequencing of images and events, the just slightly idiosyncratic forms of expression ("Besides, it has gone five o'clock"). It recalls Hemingway ("I wipe off the mess... sticking to the saw until it is more or less clean an leave it to dry out on a bench...") but softer-edged and less obsessive ("... pick the last bits off with my fingers. They make a nice little heap."). This is reportorial writing, but the clarity of the expression implies a certain kind of appreciative attentiveness on the part of both narrator and writer, turned outward to the world.

There are other passages which display the same attentiveness, but turned inward. The narrator is a patient and knowing student of his own mind, its inclinations and their origins. Here he reflects on his attitude about physical work, and the sources of that attitude:

What I do, which I have never let anyone know, is I close my eyes every time I have to do something practical apart from the daily chores everyone has, and then I picture how my father would have done it or how he actually did do it while I was watching him, and then I copy that until I fall into the proper rhythym, and the task reveals itself and grows visible, and that's what I have done for as long as I can remember, as if the secret lies in how the body behaves towards the task at hand, in a certain balance when you start, like hitting the board in a long jump and the early calculation of how much you need, or how little, and the mechanism that is always there in every kind of job; first one thing and then the other, in a context that is buried in each piece of work, in fact as if what you are going to do already exists in its finished form, and what the body has to do when it starts to move is to draw aside a veil so it all can be read by the person observing. And the person observing is me, and the man I am watching, his movements and skills, is a man of barely forty, as my father was when I saw him for the last time when I was fifteen, and he vanished from my life forever. (69-70)

This is a passage that gets just an enormous amount of work done in a short space: it's about work, it's about attentiveness, it's about his father, it's about his own personality, it's about being a student, it's about the craft of writing and about the art of living well. And even after I've forgotten everything else, I'll remember lying on my sofa in the living room, my eyes moving over this passage, and feeling the writing, feeling at one with the character, and feeling, although maybe not saying it to myself in so many words, "This is really great."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Long Time Gone

So it's been more than a month now since I've posted anything here. I've got excuses, sure. I spent a week in Long Beach at TED and a week in San Fran at NAIS, and the week in between was the week of our the once-yearly curriculum day at our school, which it was my responsibility to plan and host. I've been reading some terrific books as welll: Stoner by John Williams, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, Justice by Michael Sandel, Day Out of Days by Sam Shepard, Chang-Rae Lee's book due out next month, some art monographs on Gerhard Richter and Giorgio Morandi and Jasper Johns, and bits and pieces of a lot of other things as well. I've seen literally dozens of speakers and taken pages of notes and had generally way more mental input in the last three weeks than I have had time to process, and more to the point, more input than I have been able to figure out even where to begin writing about.

My dilemma as a blogger: the little things seem hardly worth writing about, and the big things seem too daunting. And so one day after another slips by without the sine qua non: a beginning. So that's what today's post is about, essentially, lowering my standards, as Hobbes once said to Calvin, to the point where they've already been met. I've been here before. I'm here again. I'm going to try to be here again tomorrow, maybe string together a couple of minimalist posts to get my writing rhythm back.